Arts Cafe-Mystic premieres "In This Together" community poetry project Thursday
April has indeed been cruel, whether T.S. Elliot had anything to say about it or not. March was cruel and May will probably follow suit.
Only April, though, is National Poetry Month, so, with the Arts Café-Mystic's spring performance schedule cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, director Lisa Starr, along with the organization's board of directors and community volunteers, is going virtual.
At 7 p.m. Thursday on the organization's website and Facebook pages, they are premiering "In This Together," a compilation video of curated poetry readings and musical performances by various members of the Arts Café-Mystic's community of supporters and guests.
The idea is loosely based on former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's 1977 "The Favorite Poem Project," where random citizens were encouraged to read and share favorite poems. For "In This Together," Starr put out an open call for volunteers who would, in home quarantine, record self-readings of personal-favorite poems or sing favorite songs and briefly explain why the work resonates.
She ended up with 31 contributors including, besides herself, established poets such as Stephen Dobyns, Coleman Barks, Gray Jacobic, Café founders Melanie Greenhouse and Christie Max Williams, and the Cafe's originally scheduled March and April poets, Carol Ann Davis and Elizabeth Thomas.
Non-professional writers taking part are two nurse practitioners (Cate Moffett and Alyson Silverberg); an architect (Tracey Dillon), two of Starr's former English teachers at Ledyard High School (Louis Gabordi and Charlie Ewers); a life coach (Larry Krips); a student (Kylie Heard, the 2020 Poet Laureate for Fitch High School); a minister (Stephen Philbrick); a lifeguard (Sam Fusaro); and former Day columnist Steve Slosberg.
Among the artists covered in the readings and song performances are Anne Sexton, Rumi, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Haney, William Butler Yeats, Mary Oliver, and Bill Withers.
"Poetry IS community," Starr says, "and I wanted this video to reflect the community-based dynamic of the Café. If you're a regular, you see a lot of the same faces at our events. They often sit in the same seats at the same table, and it seemed a great idea to know more about each other. More than ever, during this crisis, the idea of strengthening community and to see ourselves in a different light is affirming and important."
When the virus hit, Starr and the board discussed whether they should present the scheduled April and May programs online. "To me, though, that seemed to only heighten the isolation," Starr says. "It seems to add pressure to the poets and musicians to compromise their performances in maybe an awkward fashion. And the community collaboration seemed more fulfilling."
"In This Together" runs about 105 minutes. Starr asked participants if they could keep their contributions to about three minutes each, and she says it was fun and enlightening to work on the choreography of the video because, whether a reader might be a "heavy hitter" or an amateur, the contributions were heartfelt.
"There are different levels of delivery, but that's part of why it's so moving," Starr says. "You see and learn so much about these people — and why poetry matters on so many levels."
Ideally, Starr says, "In This Together" would have been completed and posted earlier. "The truth is," she admits, "our technical skills are mediocre at best and some of it became overwhelming." She reached out to Shawn Greeley and Liam O'Donnell at Groton Municipal Television, the station that carries archived Arts Café-Mystic performances, who then worked their editing and computer magic to realize Starr's blueprint.
"It'll all be activated tonight at 7 p.m.," Starr says, "and part of the idea is the hope that a bunch of us are all watching it at the same time. But it's also nice to know that anyone will be able to see it going forward. And that, hopefully, we'll do it again."
Who: The Arts Cafe-Mystic
What: Premiere of "In This Together," a new video compilation of community poetry readings celebrating National Poetry Month
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: artscafemystic.org and the Cafe's Facebook page
How much: Free
For more information: artscafemystic.org